A Spiky passion

November 20, 1998

"Presumably, if you spend ****-all, you get absolutely perfect standards." Mike Fitzgerald is not a man to pull his punches. Perhaps the best illustration is this now notorious outburst, directed from a 1996 conference platform to the then Conservative higher education minister, Eric Forth, who had just tried to deny a link between spending and quality.

The outburst shows his political leanings as much as it does his passion for good higher education in the face of debilitating funding squeezes. It also characterises his passion to differentiate himself - and his institution - from elitist stereotypes of higher education.

As higher education's youngest vice-chancellor, the 47-year-old's spiky hair-cut - which gives him a resemblance to the ageing rock star Rod Stewart - his solitary dangly earring and his quirky taste in suits has set him apart physically from colleagues.

His zeal for widening access for traditionally disenfranchised groups has been described as "laudable" by the very inspection team that ultimately condemned him to resignation.

Dr Fitzgerald was an innovator. He won a much-criticised grant earlier this year from the Department for Education and Employment to set up a centre of excellence in Indian cooking and restaurant management to tackle a serious skills shortage in the expanding industry.

Traditionalists at first balked at some of his more innovative views, such saying that the completion of courses by his students was of secondary importance to their gaining self-confidence. He also attacked the A level as a mark of students' future performance.

But since Labour came to power in May 1997, Dr Fitzgerald's views have increasingly enjoyed mainstream attention.

A former vice-chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Dr Fitzgerald took a close interest as an adviser to the government's flagship skills project, the University for Industry. He is also a "friend" of prime minister Tony Blair and is believed to have influenced Mr Blair's decision to increase student numbers.

Dr Fitzgerald's views on access were founded during a long stint as a dean of social studies at the Open University. He left the OU in the late 1980s, to become deputy director at what was Coventry Polytechnic.

Dr Fitzgerald's driving ambition to widen access would eventually be his undoing, the QAA inspectors found. In 1991 he took over at TVU, just as it won its university status. He simply tried to do too much, too soon, the QAA found.

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